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Finish That Homework!

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Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal
Amy Chua with her daughters Lulu and Sophia, New Haven, Connecticut, 2011

In his memoir Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama tells us that when he was a boy in Indonesia, his mother

five days a week…came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she left for work. I offered stiff resistance to this regimen, but in response to every strategy I concocted…she would patiently repeat her most powerful defense:
“This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

President Obama is the evidently successful result of having had a Tiger Mother, the term made current by Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which the author describes her similarly exacting approach to motherhood. Her challenging goals for her two daughters were a picnic neither for them nor for her. To get those girls to Carnegie Hall and Harvard involved hours of piano and violin practice, math and spelling drills, the expectation that they would have perfect grades, and be the best at whatever they did; and their mother was there “in the trenches,” as she says, with them. It takes self-discipline and a lot of time to be a Tiger Mother, and that’s where, according to Chua, American parents have let their offspring down.

Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale University, with two daughters whom she has raised with firmness, to say the least. That her account of some of her views and practices—standing over them at the piano for hours at a time, rejecting ill-done Mother’s Day cards or careless essays, requiring A report cards—horrified some of the wide audience for her book shouldn’t surprise. Did anyone ever admire the way other parents bring up their kids? There’s scarcely a subject more fraught with reproach and scrutiny, more fertile for theories, than parenting, and motherhood in particular. And what woman doesn’t feel a raft of guilty, vulnerable, anxious emotions about her own qualities as a mother? Fathers, no doubt, feel uncertainties too, but aren’t held to account in the same way, nor are they expected to develop a philosophy.

Chua defends hers by saying she is paying the children the compliment of assuming that they can accomplish what she demands, that they sense her respect for them, and that it’s the Chinese way. She is, after all, only perpetuating her own upbringing:

When I was little, my mother used to say, “Why do you need to sleep at someone else’s house? What’s wrong with your own family?” As a parent, I took the same position…. Sophia didn’t need to be exposed to the worst of Western society, and I wasn’t going to let platitudes like “Children need to explore” or “They need to make their own mistakes” lead me astray.

Since the publication of the book, maybe in response to the vigorous comment that ensued, she has added that it’s partly a tongue-in-cheek apology for having gone overboard, an admission that she knows she’s a little obsessive and needs to relax, and that her methods have cost her social acceptance, a lot of time, and a certain amount of family friction. And it should also be said that in the outcry around this book, many people will have read reviews and discussions of it without having read the actual text, and thus will have missed Chua’s light tone of mischievous provocation:

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

The hyperbole disguises and to an extent mitigates the underlying seriousness of her real subject, the Decline of the West. Maybe it is this subtext that has caused people to react to Chua’s confession with unusual vehemence; she says she has received hundreds of e-mails and even death threats; people left parties when she came in. Reading a number of reviews together, one is left with the impression not so much of ire or indignation on behalf of Chua’s accomplished but overworked children, but of chagrin, the reflex of a sneaking sense that we haven’t spent enough time with our kids or helped them on to the distinctions that might have been inherent in their natures.

Among the numerous reviews, comments vary from vitriol to grudging admiration to defiance. Some readers feel that Chua should be prosecuted for child abuse, others that she is too self-involved. Everyone will notice that most of Chua’s anecdotes, so ostensibly loaded with self-reproach, also happen to showcase her familiarity with music, sports, Europe, and other languages—a picture of an accomplished, impressive if irritating person whose skills embrace, finally, loving care of husband, children, and dogs. “In truth, Ms. Chua’s memoir is about one little narcissist’s book-length search for happiness…. It will gratify the same people who made a hit out of the granola-hearted ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’” snaps Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

Critics predict that her children will be estranged, traumatized, spend years with shrinks, have health problems, and so on, but of course no one can possibly know the actual dynamics of any given family; generations of Americans have had ambitious parents, and often, like Obama, profited from the attention. Yet other critics think she doesn’t go far enough. David Brooks, tongue only partly in cheek, says:

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group—these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Ayelet Waldman, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says she allowed her kids to

participate in any extracurricular activity they wanted, so long as I was never required to drive farther than 10 minutes to get them there, or to sit on a field in a folding chair in anything but the balmiest weather for any longer than 60 minutes….
The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction. But here is another difference, one I’ll admit despite being ashamed of it, too: I did not then go out and get hundreds of practice tests and work through them with my daughter far into the night, doing whatever it took to get her the A. I fobbed that task off on a tutor, something I can afford to do because my children reside in the same privileged world as Ms. Chua’s.

Asian-Americans seem especially infuriated. Betty Ming Liu blogged on January 8 about “lunatic, prestige-whoring Chinese parents” with “values that have nearly ruined so many of us…. Haven’t we had enough of over-pressured, guilt-ridden Asian immigrant and Asian-American college students committing suicide and acting out???” Wesley Yang, writing in New York magazine, sums up his “feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work….” He reminds readers that no matter how accomplished an Asian-American is, there’s still a bamboo ceiling after graduation.

Why has this book excited such extreme reactions? It’s not as if Chua is advocating female circumcision or corporal punishment; her thesis shouldn’t really shock. Most people accept that differences among cultures and parental assumptions exist. And besides cultural influences, most people survive some form of parental eccentricity, the stuff of eventual memoirs; one of my childhood friends was given almost daily enemas according to some then-prevalent Scandinavian theory of hygiene.

There are simple differences in family rhetorical conventions. I remember years ago reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and being shocked that her grand-uncle called girl children “maggots,” something she doesn’t remember with special pain today. According to Chua, all Chinese parents make use of shame, call their kids “fatty” and “garbage,” and much worse, and the kids understand it as being within the boundaries of the family’s chosen level of diction: it’s just the way mom talks. When such talk seems excessive to her fellow guests at a dinner party, Chua says, “It’s a Chinese immigrant thing.” Someone points out that she isn’t a Chinese immigrant. “Good point,” she concedes. “No wonder it didn’t work.”

She explains her apparent harshness more as a difference in expressive style: “It’s not that Chinese parents don’t care about their children. Just the opposite.” They don’t worry as Western parents do about self-esteem, and they think their children can take criticism. “They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.” “As a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”

Chinese” in Chua’s lexicon basically signifies any motivated and disciplined subgroup competing with the tired, ineffectual mainstream. At other periods in American history we could have substituted the name of some other ethnic minority. Some of the anxious comment on her book may be connected to our apprehensions about China. If Chua had written The Battle Hymn of a Nigerian Mother would our reaction be the same?

The child of immigrants, Chua herself fits into a traditional American pattern: immigrant parents, high-achieving children, a more relaxed third generation often becoming artists or filmmakers—or musicians or tennis players, like her daughters Lulu and Sophia.

In raising them, Chua directly challenges the prevailing Western orthodoxies, in place since Dr. Spock, or even since Freud, that hold that repression breeds psychological problems, and that freedom and creativity are intertwined—but do we really believe those orthodoxies anyhow? She thinks that American kids waste too much time and expend too little effort, and the same goes for American parents. She has a lot of evidence for this—grade inflation is one result, the poor performance of American students on internationally competitive tests is another. The poor performance of Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic students within our school system is another. The University of California relaxed some grade-dependent admissions policies, which had been strictly color- and gender-blind, because the university was filling up chiefly with Asians.

Internationally, Americans rank far below European and Asian students on some measures—thirty-first in the world in math, for example. There are no measures, by any of the most important tests (OECD, McKenzie, US Department of Education), in which the US excels, or even does better than average in any subject, and in some subjects (math), American students do far worse than average, despite the fact that we spend more money per pupil than almost any other country.* And this is a nation that thinks of itself as number one. Chua sneers a little at unwarranted self-esteem:

  1. *

    See OECD education statistics, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the US Department of Education, and many other available statistics bearing on US rankings. 

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